Bairnsfather: Will He Be Recognized After 100 years For his Contribution?

One of the relics of a bygone age are the Bairnsfather cartoons that helped to sustain the morale of British troops of the First World War in the trenches, as well as people back home. Captain Bruce Bairnsfather was a soldier on the battlefield who experienced shell shock in April 1915 during the Second Battle of Ypres, and was afterward given the duty of machine gun instructor for the 34th Division on Salisbury Plain.

While still fighting in the trenches, Bairnsfather’s cartoons already began appearing in the Bystander, a weekly magazine, beginning in March of 1915. His artwork featured Old Bill, a soldier on the western front who sported a walrus mustache who always had a wry comment while enduring the misery of war. As a result of the boost in morale he gave to soldiers in the field and to many others, Bairnsfather was often lauded as “the man who won the war”. His artwork soon inspired merchandise, films, plays and books due to its popularity. The most famous example of his work is currently displayed by English Heritage at the Stonehenge visitor center in an exhibit called Salisbury Plain and the Journey to the First World War. This is an original artwork for one of his best known cartoons, with the caption “Well, if you knows of a better ‘ole, go to it”. A compilation of his work, of which more than a million were sold, was first published in January of 1916.

No official recognition was ever given to Bairnsfather for his contribution, in spite of his work later in the war in an official capacity as a part of military intelligence for propaganda purposes, designated “official cartoonist”. Many, including members of his family, are now calling for acknowledgement of his contribution to the war effort after nearly a century.

A biography of Captain Bairnsfather has just been published, In Search of the Better ‘Ole, by Major Tonie and Valmai Holt. They have begun a campaign, petitioning the government to issue a statement in the House of Commons to give Bairnsfather recognition for his contribution before the 100th anniversary in October of next year of the “Better ‘Ole” cartoon’s release. Supporting the campaign are Bairnsfather’s family, the Cartoon Museum of London, the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers Museum as well as other organizations, The Independent reports.

During the war however, not all authorities thought highly of Bairnsfather’s work, considering his portrayal of the British soldier as “scruffy and ill-disciplined”. However, this opinion was in contrast to requests from the armies of France, Italy and America during the war, that Bairnsfather draw cartoons depicting their fighting men too, in the field.

“I think he served… in a very interesting way, first as a soldier and second as an artist and sort of documentarian of what happened at the front. What he drew, the common soldier [and] the common man could relate to. It wasn’t some high-brow take on what happened: it was an attempt to really bring home to the British people the resilience to sustain the struggle and at the same time to believe in its purpose,” commented Bruce Littlejohn, Bairnsfather’s eldest grandchild, now 63 years old and supporting the petition for Parliamentary recognition.

A biographical exhibition of Bairnsfather is currently showing in Stratford-upon-Avon at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre until March. A play featuring characters reminiscent of Bairnsfather and Old Bill, and memories of the Warwickshire regiment of 1914 opens on the 29th of November.

Ian Harvey

Ian Harvey is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE